Why Brisbane needs a Holocaust museum

 

We were sitting at a cafe in the middle of a town square in Krakow when my Grandad finally told the story of how he escaped Nazi Poland.

It was 11 years ago and I wish I could remember the name of the square and exactly the words he used as the shadows cast longer across a day I'll cherish for as long as I live.

What I do remember is the unbridled pain of an old man who would finally unlock one of his longest-held secrets to his granddaughter.

Queensland Holocaust museum announced

 

My Grandad, Jan Marszalek, at his home in Birmingham, England before he passed away in 2015. Picture: Supplied
My Grandad, Jan Marszalek, at his home in Birmingham, England before he passed away in 2015. Picture: Supplied

In his thick accent, and in the broken English his stroke had left him with, he told us how his mother had hidden her boy under the house of the farm where they lived so the Germans didn't know a boy lived there.

There were still holes in the story - holes I would come to understand - but at some point he was set to be transported with his mother and little sister and was being held with a group of people.

Freeing his binds, and helping him escape with a few others by climbing underneath something - parts of the story could only be gestured, so painful was it for him to recount - his mother tells him she is too old and his sister is too young.

Raggedly, he remembers the last words she will speak to him: "Run!"

When my now husband and I told my Grandad during a holiday to England in 2009 we were headed to Poland next and he told us he'd come, we took it in good humour.

Jan Marszalek was a bit of a talker and a bit of a joker and he would never make the trip back to his homeland all those decades after fleeing after World War II.

Not when his own daughters had had no luck persuading him through the years. But he boarded the flight with us just weeks later for that trip where I'd find some of the missing parts of our family's history, cleaved off from us by those horrors of war.

The main gate at the Auschwitz World War II German concentration camp in Poland.
The main gate at the Auschwitz World War II German concentration camp in Poland.

We would have gone to Auschwitz either way. But there was a specialness and a heaviness travelling there with Grandad in the taxi.

It was quiet as we drove through the country. Every so often Grandad made some attempt to jog his memory. He'd told us he'd lived close to Auschwitz as a boy.

It's hard to describe the magnitude of the experience of entering the gates of this infamous place and visiting its museum.

I remember the piles of shoes that belonged to the victims, valued higher than the lives of the people wearing them.

I remember the hair, piled in mounds taller than a person - remnants of the mass murder of at least 1.1 million people here. And I remember one photo in particular - two children, waiting outside a building for their parents who would never come back to them.

Jewish people being lined up by German soldiers at the Auschwitz-Birkenau World War II German concentration camp in Poland.
Jewish people being lined up by German soldiers at the Auschwitz-Birkenau World War II German concentration camp in Poland.

It was too painful for my Grandad to spend too long in the museum. We found him outside, pacing, almost distraught.

He told us his mother had sent him to throw food over the fence and he'd been shot at but managed to escape.

Perhaps that was when it was a work camp, before the gassings began.

We visited Birkenau, a satellite camp built down the road when there were too many people for the Third Reich to keep or kill at Auschwitz.

It sprawls more than 400 acres and is connected by railway tracks. There are still some structures here even though the Nazis tore down most trying to hide evidence of their barbaric acts when the war finally ended.

But the chimneys remain and cast shadows across the land, as far as the eye can see. Visiting here with my Grandad filled some of the gaps he'd not been able to for our family.

 

No wonder he'd never told the story of his escape before.

No wonder he'd never answered the letter that came from America from the woman claiming to be his sister all those years ago.

No wonder he'd made up stories about escaping the Nazis by riding elephants over the Alps.

How could a person who experienced such horrors as a boy be blamed for not wanting to relive them as an adult?

The Morrison Government has committed $3.5m to build a Holocaust museum in Brisbane.

The state LNP has committed funds as well, and the Palaszczuk Labor Government says it's open to the idea too.

Visiting Poland and those Holocaust museums taught me more than history books ever could - about the horrors of genocide, about my family's history and a little more about who I am.

Others deserve a chance to connect with their past too. Queensland needs this museum.

Originally published as Why Brisbane needs a Holocaust museum


Horror highway averages almost one death per year

Premium Content Horror highway averages almost one death per year

Tragic history prompts petition demanding immediate action.

How a young man’s cancer death saved lives

Premium Content How a young man’s cancer death saved lives

Cory Geisler was a happy 27 year old when he found a suspicious mark on his body

Labor resets approach saying it ‘treasures’ CQ coal jobs

Premium Content Labor resets approach saying it ‘treasures’ CQ coal jobs

Labor has thrown its support behind the region’s coal industry while challenging...